Re-Balancing the Welsh Curriculum

John Osmond reports on a crusade being waged by Education Minister Leighton Andrews to give vocational studies parity of esteem with the academic

A rebalancing of the 14-19 curriculum in Wales to give greater prominence and esteem to vocational qualifications was forecast yesterday by Education Minister Leighton Andrews in a keynote address to an IWA conference on Learning Pathways. The Minister coupled this pledge with a forecast that there would have to be greater co-operating between schools and further education colleges to make it happen.

As he put it to the conference, held at the Welsh Joint Education Committee’s new headquarters in Llandaff:

“It is likely that we will have to narrow the range of academic choices if we are to broaden the vocational agenda, maintain Key Skills and support strategic subjects. We have a clear direction from the First Minister to eliminate unnecessary institutional competition. I do not believe that the current structure of post-16 provision is sustainable as it is currently constituted. I welcome the mergers that have taken place within the FE sector, and I expect that more will happen.”

The Minister reiterated his determination, outlined earlier this year, that more education investment should reach the front-line of schools and colleges, with the implication that the role of local authorities is being held up to scrutiny. The wide range of funding levels between pupils in Wales and across local authorities is being subject to a review by outside consultants that he has already announced.

But the main focus of his speech yesterday was a wider range of vocational subjects being offered to pupils as a result of Learning and Skills (Wales) measure passed by the National Assembly last year:

“The Measure secures learner access to a more flexible curriculum that will both better meet their needs, and equip them for high skilled employment or further and higher education. Learners can now choose from a minimum number of courses at Key Stage 4, including vocational options. By 2012 all year 10 pupils will be able to choose their course of study from a local curriculum comprising a minimum of 30 Level 2 course choices. This curriculum must also include a minimum of five vocational course choices, thereby ensuring that there is a real choice of vocational options for learners.

“The entitlement for Key Stage 4 is being introduced incrementally towards 2012 but I am pleased that 91% of schools met their specified minimum course requirement for September 2009. The minimum course requirement for Post-16 will be rolled out from September 2011….

… In terms of the 14-19 agenda, we want to ensure a wider choice between vocational and academic routes. But I do not want that choice to dilute quality. So if we are to be honest with ourselves, we have to recognise that that broader strategic choice, to open up vocational options alongside the academic, may require us to limit subject choice if we are to ensure strategic subjects are taught and key skills learned.

“And for individuals, having more choice means sometimes difficult decisions for young people. Support from a Learning Coach, together with impartial careers advice and guidance, will help young people make the choices that will give them the best chance of success in the future, and help them realise the choices they have made.”

In all of this the Minister stressed that a key need was to persuade society as a whole of the value of the vocational educational route, calling in aide the words of Raymond Williams, in his Culture and Society, written 50 years ago:

Many highly educated people have, in fact, been so driven in on their reading….that they fail to notice that there are other forms of skilled, intelligent, creative activity: not only the cognate forms of theatre, concert, and picture-gallery; but a whole range of general skills, from gardening, metalwork and carpentry, to active politics. The contempt for so many of these activities, which is always latent in the highly literate, is a mark of the observers’ limits, not those of the activities themselves.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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